Death as Celebrity: Suffer the Parents

The trench coat mafia, it seems, were admirers of Adolf Hitler. That is the man to admire if your goal is to murder lots of people. This time the Jews were the jocks. Go figure.

What did the dweeby misfits in my high school do? They smoked pot, and read Nietzsche. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb read Nietzsche, too, come to think of it, though they murdered only one victim.

I have heard the talkers talking. (How can you escape them? We do everything to death, including death, not realizing that wall-to-wall coverage only makes things small.) What have the talkers been saying?

If only we had taken all guns and plastique and given them to Senator Charles Schumer, none of this would have happened. Good luck; there’s a lot of ordnance out there. I was just in a Southern flyover state, where the girls are blonde, the men wear gimme caps, and the great vowel shift ended up in a different place. On television, there was a show called The One That Didn’t Get Away , which consisted of a series of photos of sportsmen, many of them boys, cradling dead herbivores while the announcer read tributes: “This is Jason, with ‘is first tin-point rack. Jason is nan years old. C’ngratulations.” Same here, Jason, and let’s hope your targets continue to be deer and ethnic cleansers, not jocks.

Then there is the culture. This is a more congenial punching bag for talkers and writers; it is nice to think that our byproducts can have an effect, if only for ill. Every slasher flick and half of the “serious” teen movies depict misfits’ revenge on the gods and goddesses who loom over the skies of adolescence. (The other teen swill worships the gods and goddesses of Hollywood, and tells their admirers how they might be like them, if they eat right, act cool and trade in for a superior set of genes. In your dreams, zit-faces! ) So the culture simultaneously stimulates envy, demonstrates its futility and plays with fantasies of retribution. Nietzsche (him again) said that socialism was like waving a slab of red meat before a caged beast. The socialists said, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The culture of adolescence says, ability is indivisible, and need is infinite; fire when ready.

Except, of course, that there are a million angry or heartsick kids out there, and they don’t attack their schools like teams of Navy Seals-just as there are millions of gun-owners whose deeds are never discussed on Larry King Live .

There is too much talk. I did a long stint on MSNBC when it first began. I liked my fellow talking heads, and the anchors. But, oh, the awful sense of phoniness bred by sitting in the studio and flying out, on the hour, like angry wasps, to swarm around some topic: aviation disasters, stock market hiccups, celebrity deaths, wars. If I had been watching me, I would have turned myself off; I finally did by leaving the job, to write about Alexander Hamilton-who died from a bullet that lodged in his spine.

However rough it is on the surviving kids, they do not have it worst. Teenagers have discovered time and death, and they brood on gloomsters like Nietzsche and Rimbaud and Kurt Cobain, or is he gone by now? But they don’t quite understand what they know, as witness their behavior; only those who still secretly believe that they are immortal would drink till they puke, smoke whole cirrus clouds, and play tag with highway guardrails. To them death is another celebrity, a mental fashion accessory; their bloodstreams still barrel them, without thought of consequences, through highs and lacrosse games and endless, indistinguishable erections.

I think of the parents. I am not a parent myself. I once gave a talk on fatherhood in the life of George Washington, and an old lady came up afterward and said, “You must be a good father yourself,” and I smiled and said I was no father at all, while I thought, “Weren’t you listening, lady? George made himself the Father of his Country despite being sterile as a broomstick.” I am not a parent myself. But I am the age of the parents in this case, and I understand-some. We are old enough to know we’re headed for the box in the hole; with luck, we won’t get there for decades, but we’ve looked at the charts, we can see the trend. One of their consolations is offspring: slips of their own flesh and blood who will walk away when their graves are being filled in. Now they must walk away from their children’s graves. The parents suffer more than the shock of violence, more than the loss of love; they lose a pledge of futurity.

The only consolation is no consolation at all. “I do not mean to reproach” any man, wrote Samuel Johnson, “for not knowing what is equally hidden from learning and from ignorance. The shame is, to impose words, for ideas, upon ourselves or others. To imagine, that we are going forward, when we are only turning round.… Thus, after having clambered, with great labor, from one step of argumentation to another, instead of rising into the light of knowledge, we are devolved back into dark ignorance; and all our effort ends in belief, that for the evils of life there is some good reason, and in confession, that the reason cannot be found.”

Or, if you prefer poetry, there is the psalmist.

“Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep; in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.

“In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.…

“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”